The Flower Man

Somewhere in Austin lives an old hippie named Turtle, who we call the Flower Man. He wears a hat that appears to be homemade, woven of straw, and covered with feathers, old flowers, new flowers, and maybe I’ve seen a plastic lizard peeking out of it. He goes to a grocery store at the end of each day, and gets all the flowers from the flower department that are at the end of their prime and would otherwise be thrown away. The next day, he takes a big basket of flowers all around and gives them away to people. Just walks up, hands you one with a big, warm, grey-toothed smile, and walks on.

Tonight I rounded my family up and made them go to the Save Our Springs festival at Barton Springs Pool, a cold, underground-fed swimming hole that is known by many as the “soul of Austin”. Turtle was there, with a few of his young friends, with tattered clothes and hemp around their necks; they were sitting, listening to the music on the grassy hillside, weaving things. The Flower Man was making tiny little bracelets out of thick green grass.

Rukan told him hello, and he flashed us a big smile, and brought a bracelet over for Rocky. He tied one on her wrist, and one for each of her mamas, too. They were deep green, and he had somehow twisted grass to fashion a little rose on each one. Rocky went over the the Flower Man’s communal blanket and sat down next to him. “Excuse me, may I watch?”

“Of course, darlin’,” he said with the same warm smile. She sat quietly with them, watching. There was a young woman, probably late teens, weaving hemp and beads. She asked Rocky her favorite color (green), and set to weaving a special necklace for her.

I watched Rocky over there sitting cross-legged with the old hippie and his grown-up flower children, and I saw myself, Rocky’s age. Little Blue, in hand-patched hand-me-downs, with soft, light blond hair and a sweet look on her face, a sweet little voice, tiny hands that loved to make things out of blades of grass and acorn tops, who talked quietly to garter snakes and learned the whistle-language of Osprey and how to pee standing up in the field. Dirty and barefoot, “hardened off” as my grandmother called us. “You’ve got to eat a peck of dirt in your lifetime.”

Rocky was me, happy and trusting, filled with joy at simple things like grass twisted into a miniature rose. Turtle was my grandfather, doing so much more than entertaining hippie kids – he understood the magic of childhood, had never lost it himself, and was never more happy then when he had a circle of people to sing songs to on his 12-string guitar. I loved that man. My heart still fills with love, swells with it, when I hear his voice, or see him in my mind.

My grandfather gave songs away. He traveled all over with his guitar, his concertina, a car full of instruments. He drew people to him, wove them together with stories about their history. He gave us the gift of his wonder, and his magic. He raised me to believe that I was magic.

Rocky sat with the Flower Man for a good half hour, and helped him weave. The girl gave Rocky her finished necklace – rough hemp, with a few clay beads woven in and a quarter-sized green bangle hanging in the front. Rocky jumped up and ran excitedly over to us – “Look! Look at my necklace!” Her face filled with joy.

Little Blue sat on the front lawn, overlooking the salt cove, with her beloved Pops, and wove wildflowers into his long gray beard. Years later, when she was eleven, he bought her a piano, and she wrote a song about that day. “…you put flowers in your beard, and called yourself a dandelion…”

More years later, grown-up Blue held her grandfather in her arms while he took his last breath, and whispered to him as his body finally, finally died. “I love you so much … don’t be afraid…”

Mama Blue watched her little daughter play with the Flower Man, and remembered. And that night, she sat and wove together words, and cried and cried.

I want to remember myself that way, always.


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